Kwakwakaʼwakw music

Kwakwaka'wakw music is a sacred and ancient art of the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples that has been practiced for thousands of years. The Kwakwaka'wakw are a collective of twenty-five nations[1]:12-13 of the Wakashan language family who altogether form part of a larger identity comprising the Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, located in what is known today as British Columbia, Canada.

The Kwakwaka'wakw peoples use instruments in conjunction with dance and song for the purposes of ceremony, ritual, and storytelling (see also Kwakwaka'wakw mythology).[2]:94 Certain Kwakwaka'wakw traditions include ghosts who are able to bring back the dead with their song.[3]:320-321 Love songs are also an important part of Kwakwaka'wakw music.[1]:45[3]

A mixture of percussive instrumentation, especially log and stick, and box or hide drums, as well as rattles, whistles, and the clapper (musical instrument) create a beat while vocal expression establishes the rhythm. Instrument makers specifically design new musical instruments for each respective dance.[2]:94

The Kwak'wala word for "summer song" is baquyala, and the word for "winter song" is ts’ē⁾k·ala.[4]:75 The arrival of the next winter season is celebrated each year in a four-day festival of song and dance called tsetseqa, or Winter Ceremonial.[5]:101-102 Tsetseqa begins with singing the songs of those who died since the last winter season.[2]:103 The entire tsetseqa season is devoted to ceremony, including initiation of the young into various dancing societies.[2]:36

Another very important festival involving song and dance is the potlatch (Chinook: "to give"),[1]:16 a Kwakwaka'wakw tradition of sharing wealth and prestige in order to establish status and ensure witnesses remember the respective stories celebrated.[2]:33-34 Potlatches often occur during tsetseqa to announce a new initiate into one of the secret dancing societies.[1]:23-24

Kwakwaka'wakw dancing societies

There are four main groups of Kwakwaka'wakw dancing societies since ancient times: Hamatsa ("Cannibal"), Winalagilis ("Making War All Over the Earth"),[5]:108 Atlakim ("Taken Far Away Into the Woods"), and Dluwalakha or Klasila.[2]:43 There is a house for each dancing society, and only members may enter.[6]:201 The ceremony is intended to recreate the original encounter with the ancient spirit. Each society delegates a song master to invent and memorize songs for all members of the respective society. Unlike other social positions, the song master is not an inherited position, but is chosen for his talent in creating and remembering songs. The song master is even paid for his services, creating and memorizing from one to four songs for every novice initiate.[2]:41 Children of song masters are placed inside a drum, and the father sings and beats the drum in sequences of four to try and pass down his talent.[1]:45

Hamatsa ("hā`mats'a")

Hamatsa ("cannibal")[3]:414-415[4]:57 is the most important secret society, replacing the earlier feminine dance hamshamtses of ancient times.[5]:40-45 Hamatsas receive their food and gifts before any other potlatch attendee. Only the sons of chiefs are eligible to become a hamatsa.[1]:23-24 The Man Eater Spirit, Baxbakualanuxsiwae,[5]:40-45 makes a whistling sound causing the spirit to possess the novice.[2]:45-46 The novice disappears into the woods, and returns crying and biting members of the audience. The musicians change tempo to match the possessed spirit. Eventually the dancers calm the spirit. The ritual concludes when the new initiate sings his newly-acquired hamatsa song. The novice performs a trick on the final day after a potlatch is held in his honour.[6]:203-204

The Kwakwaka'wakw of Fort Rupert, the largest of the Kwakwaka'wakw villages at the time of European contact,[1]:12-13 raided a Heiltsuk canoe in 1835 and stole Hamatsa whistles. The nation subsequently adopted hamatsa dance traditions.[2]:45-46

Contemporary historians argue that hamatsa initiates were not real cannibals, rather they used fake or real flesh as props of which they did not actually consume.[7]


Winalagilis ("Making War All Over the Earth") dances tell the stories of violent and possessed warriors. Ghost dancers revive the dead warrior spirits and afterward sing a song together.[2]:47 Song leaders of ghost dancers memorize two songs only.[8]:917


The song for the Atlakim ("Taken Far Away Into the Woods") dance introduces the dancers. Singers repeat the song for each new dancer they introduce.[2]:48


The Kwakwaka'wakw Peoples restrict Dluwalakha ceremonies to the spring season. They hold a potlatch on the last day of the ceremony to repay the mask makers and everyone else who was affected by the novice dancer. Dancers sometimes use a Dluwalakha dance to announce their intentions of one day becoming a hamatsa.[6]:205-206 Cedar whistles introduce the supernatural motivation for the Dluwalakha dance. Masks accompany the song and dance, which collectively tell the story of the novice being overtaken by a supernatural power of the family dloogwi.[2]:49

Kwakwaka'wakw ensemble

Kwakwaka'wakw ensemble includes a variety of different musical instruments depending on the purpose of the dance being performed, with vocals being the only melodic instrument in the soundscape of their ensemble.

The rattle is the most important instrument in the ceremony of the Kwakwaka'wakw rituals. In his book Crooked Beak of Heaven, Bill Holm describes the sound of the rattle as being a "direct contact with the supernatural."[9]:26

The box drum is another instrument central to Kwakwaka'wakw music. It is usually made from cedar, which has a spiritual significance for the Kwakwaka'wakw Peoples (see Kwakwaka'wakw mythology). A large number of people collectively beat the drum and sing the song that they are drumming to.[9]:25


The Kwakwaka'wakw Peoples use a variety of whistles each containing its own unique pitch. Sometimes they combine several chambers together so the player is able to produce up to three combined pitches without switching instruments. Whistles announce the presence of supernatural spirits.[9]:23-24 Whistles also represent voices of the spirits in the stories being told.[6]:203-204

Drum ("mEnā'tsē")

A singer's baton, or rhythm instrument, is the main form of percussion in Kwakwaka'wakw music.[4]:50 The baton is typically one foot in length and made of a variety of wood depending on whether for temporary or long-term use.[9]:23-24 Simple firewood comprises the temporary batons, which every guest receives so they can drum along with, and be part of, the beat.[2]:41 Song leaders, or baton masters, use elaborately carved sticks they use more than once[2]:41 made from hardwood or cedar. The carving is typically a sea lion because they have a similar shape comparable to the singer's baton, however the significance of the design is unclear. The box drum is also a form of percussion used for thousands of years by the Kwakwaka'wakw Peoples.[9]:23-24

Rattle ("ia'tEn")

Wooden rattles are used in Kwakwaka'wakw music for ceremonial purposes to establish contact with the supernatural world.[4]:69 The rattle is an ancient icon intended to keep the dancer calm and free of spiritual possession.[9]:26 Rattles also reportedly bring back the dead.[10]:465


Kwakwaka'wakw music clappers are a combination of the rattle and singing baton, and are traditionally made of leather and wood. The clapper is a one-handed instrument that produces sharp and sudden sounds when the two pieces of wood clap together.[9]:26


  1. Ford, Clellan S. (1941). Smoke from Their Fires: The life of a Kwakiutl Chief. Hamden, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-208-00336-3.
  2. Hawthorn, Audrey (1967). Kwakiutl Art. United States of America: Douglas & McIntyre. ISBN 0-88894-239-7.
  3. Boas, Franz (1910). Kwakiutl Tales. II. New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. Boas, Franz and the American Philosophical Society (1893). Vocabulary of the Kwakiutl Language. CIHM/ICMH Microfiche Series: No. 14309.
  5. Goldman, Irving (1975). The Mouth of Heaven. United States of America: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-31140-5.
  6. Drucker, Philip (1938). Kwakiutl Dancing Societies. London, England: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Glass, Aaron (2009). "A Cannibal in the Archive: Performance, Materiality, and (In)Visibility in Unpublished Edward Curtis Photographs of the Kwakwaka'wakw Hamat'sa". Visual Anthropology Review. 25 (2): 132. doi:10.1111/j.1548-7458.2009.01038.x via Anthrosource.
  8. Boas, Franz (1921). Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, based on data collected by George Hunt. Washington: Government Printing Office. p. 917.
  9. Holm, Bill (1972). Crooked Beak of Heaven. United States of America: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-95172-9.
  10. Boas, Franz (1910). Kwakiutl Tales. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 302–303.
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